Book Bag: ‘Digger,’ a new memoir, plus ‘Do Jellyfish Like Peanut Butter?’ and other questions  

Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2020

Digger: A Memoir

By Barbara McCollough

Every family has its secrets. In “Digger,” a memoir by Barbara McCollough, secrecy cuts through two generations of a family and centers on one question in particular: Did the author have a twin sister who was given away at their birth?

McCollough, a psychotherapist and consultant who lives in Florence, tells her story in part through a series of diary entries written to a woman named Kaye Wechsler, whom McCollough suspects may be her long-lost twin. It’s 1995, McCollough is living and working in Boston, and she begins her memoir with one of these entries, telling Wechsler she has just sent her a letter and that she hopes she might be able to meet her the following week in Florida.

“Dear Kaye, you and I have never met but I have reason to believe we share a very special connection,” McCollough writes. “I believe we may be related and that there are family secrets which have kept us from knowing each other.”

That’s McCollough’s means for introducing a story that moves back and forth in time, from her birth in Florida in the late 1940s to growing up in western Pennsylvania and a few other places, then studying at the Smith College School for Social Work in the mid 1970s. Through much of this time, McCollough writes, she experienced a feeling of her life being incomplete — “Something was missing” — in a way she can’t quite articulate.

She’s also troubled by a story she remembers hearing: that her mother, so enormously pregnant in the late 1940s that the doctors suspected she might have twins, overheard the nurses at the hospital saying, on the day McCollough was born, that another woman in the maternity ward had lost her baby that day.

Yet that woman, Mrs. Wechsler, did end up with an infant, McCollough’s mother later recalled. And for some unexplained reason, McCollough’s birth certificate says she’s a twin.

What starts McCollough on a quest to unravel the mystery is meeting a friend of her roommate in Boston in 1975 who, at a dinner party, goes to give her a hug, then breaks off with an embarrassed “I’m sorry. For a second I thought you were someone from home.”

But later that evening, when McCollough relates the story she had heard about her birth, her roommate’s friend, Kim, reminds McCollough of mistaking her for someone she knows and then says “The person you look exactly like is Kaye Wechsler.”

“Digger” follows McCollough’s efforts over the years to try and learn more about her twin — is she real? — which means cutting through smokescreens her parents put up, especially her father. They’re not outright denials, but neither parent will fully address the issue, either.

The book has a certain whodunit element to it, and it also offers much self-reflection as well as a look at how family secrets can persist for generations. McCollough learns her father never knew the identity of his own birth father — his mother refused to reveal that to him — and that her older sister was born out of wedlock. The author writes about her own early, failed marriage to a man, her coming out as a lesbian, and her conflicted feelings about her effort to find her twin.

“I started to notice, often through the observations of friends, how my perspective on things was different from theirs and potentially reflective of being a twin,” she writes. But when McCollough sees high-school age photos of her suspected twin, she’s not convinced the girl looks like her: Is she simply becoming too obsessed with the issue?

“My stomach churned,” she writes. “Leave well enough alone was having a vicious fight with can’t stop now!

It’s an emotional and complex journey, which one reviewer says McCollough tells with “clarity and immediacy,” calling the author a “gifted observer of people in relationships; she knows what they show and what they hide, and she knows what they know but refuse to acknowledge.”

More information on “Digger” is available at barbaramccollough.com.

Do Jellyfish Like
Peanut Butter?

and The Grumpy Pirate

By Corinne Demas
and Artemis Roehrig

The mother-and-daughter writing team of Corinne Demas and Artemis Roehrig goes back years, to the time when Artemis, as a young girl, would read stories her mother wrote for her; as a teen and younger adult, Roehrig helped proofread and copy edit her mother’s work while also sharing story ideas.

In more recent years, the two writers, both of Amherst, have collaborated on a number of children’s books, bringing their different backgrounds into play. Demas, a former Mount Holyoke College English professor, has written for children and adults, and Roehrig has a master’s in biology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Mother and daughter have released two new books this summer. The first, “Do Jellyfish Like Peanut Butter? Amazing Sea Creature Facts” takes the form of a humorous Q&A in which the silly questions kids might ask about sea life are followed (usually) by a resounding “No!” and an explanation of what a critter really does.

A seahorse, for instance, might not wear a saddle, the authors write, but a male seahorse does have a pouch in which it carries the female’s eggs to term. The story, with colorful illustrations by Ellen Shi, also has a glossary with pictures of different sea creatures and some basic facts about them.

And in “The Grumpy Pirate,” Demas and Roehrig use an ever-popular setting for kids to tackle a theme that’s relevant both to young children and their parents. On this ship, the crabby pirate in question, Gus, is wearing out everyone aboard with his bad mood and complaints: his clothes itch, his pillow’s too lumpy, he doesn’t like the food. Fellow crew members, unable to cheer up Gus, turn to the ship’s queen for help.

The queen’s solution? Give Gus a parrot, which repeats all of Gus’s gloomy words and sour faces, forcing Gus to realize that he needs to change his tune: If he can be happy, so can his parrot.

More information on these books and on Demas and Roehrig can be found at corinnedemas.com and artemisroehrig.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.